You Can Never Go Back

Percy and Edythe Wakeford’s farm today. Once a lively place with typical farm critters, and a warm welcome from the childless couple who loved summer visitors and sold eggs and vegetables to them.

Prepare for disappointments when you return to a place that meant a lot to you as a kid. In your absence, progress advances, disguising your landmark memories with modernity or neglect.

For the current residents of Washburn Island, the narrow dusty tracks that rimmed Lake Scugog now have metal signposts with designated street names and house numbers: paved and wide enough for two cars to pass. It’s comforting to know that three of the street names honour the farming families that lived on the island from the beginning of cottage-ing in the early 1900s until today (Wakeford, Bowen & Grill).

The island is about 300 acres, with some of its land-locked centre under cultivation still. When I was a baby in ’47 (first visit at 3 weeks old), there were probably about 30 cottages on the sunny west side facing the larger Scugog Island where the Blue Heron Casino attracts visitors today. Farmer Percy Wakeford parcelled off 50-ft. lots during the ’30s depression, perhaps because he made more money selling land than he made for low-priced yields in a desperate rural economy.

Within weeks of building basic structures, most clad with Manitoba maple, cottagers cut down cedars trees, constructing branch fences as barricades against Percy’s wandering cows and horses. My parents told stories of four-legged creatures nosing up against their screened windows. I recall brown horses hanging their heads over the cedar fence at my grandparents’ cottage. Mum taught us to hold sugar cubes on our palms and let the horses squeeze them off our palms with rubbery lips.

Looking south from my Humphries grandparents’ cottage to the fronts of my Burrows grandparents’ and aunt and uncle’s waterfront beside The Point. High water in the Trent System ate up the beach and eroded some of the property at the shore.

Often when swimming in the soupy waters we’d look a hundred feet south at The Point. Percy’s cows cooled themselves ankle-deep in the lake beside the last remnant of unsold pasture at the water’s edge.

Before the Trent System raised water levels, a 20-foot sandy beach stretched around the west side, anchored by large boulders cleared to make way for crops in pioneer times. The sandy beach below a shallow bluff was our playground, a place of sand castles and moats, a rocky ledge for sun-baking ashtrays molded from clay found close to shore, a place for a narrow wooden dock and a cumbersome rowboat Gran ordered from Eaton’s catalogue .

In the early ’50s, I had two sets of grandparents with cottages one lot apart, a great-aunt and uncle with a cottage “down the line,” and an aunt and uncle’s cottage beside The Point. Each unique cottage was a place for me to visit, to get a drink of water, a biscuit, to celebrate with a fire at night, marshmallows on a stick, a place to find an outhouse, a place to pump a well. Each cottage had clusters of relatives and their visiting friends. Each parent knew they were providing something special for their kids, something they couldn’t have dreamed of in England from where they came.

Every cottager had a well and pump. This is all that remains of Farmer Wakeford’s pump. I remember swinging on the gate that opened to their property from the narrow dusty road.

It’s gone now. Other peoples’ memories are progressing at Washburn Island. Percy and Edythe Wakeford moved and shortly after died nearly 40 years ago. Gran Humphries died in 1970, and Gramp hung on for a few years, but the loneliness and upkeep overwhelmed him and he sold. My aunt took over Grandma Burrows’ cottage, but her husband died and with uninterested teenagers, she sold. Her sister who’d owned the cottage beside The Point reconsidered the long drive from Toronto’s west end, and the tragedy that affected them personally on the island, and sold too. By the early 70s, the only cottage left was the lot my parents bought from Farmer Bowen in ’56. They sold it in ’91, preferring travel to cottage maintenance. Sixty years of memories ended with my own children barely able to recollect our rare visits.

There are hundreds of homes on the island now. New roads with names like Sugar Bush Trail. I took pictures of the old cottages two weeks ago, transformed though they are, some in good ways, some by neglect.

You can never go back. You feel like you’ve been robbed of something precious.

Legend for Old Washburn Island

Legend for Old Washburn Island


Readers comments and stories are welcome.

Or, contact by email:

11 responses to this post.

  1. Fabulous piece, Mary. Love the balance in your telling between ‘then’ and ‘now. A thoughtful yet nostalgic look a wonderful and formative time in your life.


    • You’ve been on my journey Cheryl. You must have noticed how let down I felt the day we went to Washburn Island. It was difficult to reconcile the old with the new.


  2. Posted by Barb yeo on July 17, 2012 at 3:46 am

    I loved reading your memories of Washburn Island, Mary. It sounds like it was a wonderful place to spend your childhood summers. I remember feeling a similar disappointment when I took my mother for a drive to our family cottage on the Bruce Penninsula. So much had changed that it barely ressembled the place I remembered.

    I often say to people that I feel very fortunate to have been a child and teenager in the 50’s and 60’s. As much as I love my computer, SUV, etc., I miss the innosence and simplicity of those times.


  3. Posted by Barb Yeo on July 17, 2012 at 3:54 am

    I loved reading your memories of Washburn Island, Mary. It sounds like it was a wonderful place to spend your childhood summers. I remember feeling a similar disappointment when I took my mother for a drive to our family cottage on the Bruce Penninsula. So much had changed that it barely ressembled the place I remembered.

    I often say to people that I feel very fortunate to have been a child and teenager in the 50’s and 60’s. As much as I love my computer, SUV, etc., I miss the innocence and simplicity of those times.


    • Yes, Barb. We had very few expectations. No “how will we entertain the kids?” stuff going on back then. Outside all day long and as far into the night as the parents would allow. Singing around bonfires with the adults (because we knew the words to their songs as well as our Brownies Best Hits). I know the younger generation will have rich memories of their own and I sound like an old grump sometimes. But when I see my grandkids racing around the dusk light, ignoring mosquitoes, and burning marshmallows over an open fire at my daughter’s house in the country, I’m a happy grandma.


  4. Posted by Barb Burns on July 17, 2012 at 5:36 am

    Loved your memories Mar – so much like mine. It was sad to see the neglect in some of the pictures, especially Gran & Gramp’s cottage. They would have been very disappointed. I remember visiting about 25 years ago, looking up at the front of their cottage and still seeing the “Twin Cedars” sign which brought a lump to my throat. Now no sign, only neglect. You are so right – you can never go back. At least we have some great memories.


    • Barb, the twin cedars are gone, so I guess the name on the top of the porch roof (a porch that is gone) didn’t have much meaning to new owners.


  5. Posted by dacemara on July 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Mary, the fullness and joy of those early years and then the sense of loss in trying to return many decades later stirs up similar memories for me now that I’m a grandma’s age too. The pump overgrown with greenery standing in what appears as mist in the background is a perfect image of the loneliness you describe in the paragraph adjacent. I can hear your grief in “Someone else’s memories are progressing at Washburn Island” but yours still live on–loving and vibrant–in your writing.


    • It makes it more critical to me than ever that getting my impressions down on paper is the only way to keep the memory alive.


  6. Posted by Heather on July 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    You may not be able to go back physically, but the memories are still there and certain smells take me back immediately: Mint, Bactine, the smell of storage bins on boats. I will alleviate some of your disappointment and let you know that I remember much about the cottage on Scugog.

    The black water beetles that skated the surface of the water; Grandpa’s sail boat that Ryan and I captained while it was tied to the dock; singing “They Built The Ship Titanic” to Grandpa while playing on the boat – he liked the part at the end where I sang “made in Japan”; rowing the old white row boat with turquoise trim down the shoreline to the place where the wild morning glory flourished; rides in “Sheba”; the bent-pipe woodstove with the round opening on the top that you had to insert a handle to use; Grandpa watering his gardens with a hose balanced on a pitchfork; picking rhubarb with Grandma to eat with piles of sugar folded into paper napkins; the campfires; helping to stain the new shed (I’m not sure how much I helped); that the lady in the neighbouring cottage (Bachelor’s) enjoyed “You Are My Sun-Shine” as her favourite song; Dingy & Dongy from the other side and their older brother Kevin – who perhaps grew up to be those three brothers on the Newhart Show – LOL; the weeds – even out by the floating swim raft; Grandpa raking the weeds so we had a clean area by the dock; reading Bobby’s old comic books at night before falling asleep; the ‘vintage’ knobby bed spreads; hauling in the big soft water jugs from the car; the curtained cupboards in the kitchen; the sound of the screen door; the many different beer caps Ryan and I collected; the smell of Grandpa’s pipes from the pipe-stand in the living room.


    • Wow, Heath. You and I should collaborate on my book! I had no idea you had those memories. Buy why am I surprised? I had similar memories at your age at my grandparents’ cottages. Thanks for reminding me of things that I might have forgotten. I’m so glad you stored them in your noggin’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: